Dennis Cooper's fiction has always been unshakable, with every spare word counting -- and bruising -- but his new novel The Marbled Swarm pushes a lush complexity to the front of the work. The wordy narrator is a dandy Parisian cannibal who preys on Emo boys and conspires against painfully bourgeois families. There's also a time-and-space defying chateau. This makes for a horrifyingly effective -- and surprisingly funny -- gothic tale at first but as the narrator brings us into his world with his wandering, stuffed sentences, the novel begins to linguistically unravel into the swarm hinted at in the title. With Cooper having spent much of his time in France over the last several years, away from his native Los Angeles, The Marbled Swarm seems explicitly continental, with touches of theOulipo Group's literary capering and a tasteful amount of cult-Euro name drops, from Isabelle Adjani to Alain Robb-Grillet.
I spoke with Cooper as he was finishing his North American book tour.
Brian Joseph Davis: Was there anything in particular you were reading or watching that informed The Marbled Swarm? Its language is certainly different from the minimalist style of your earlier books. Dennis Cooper: Well, I wanted to build a voice that was beholden to French literature, and particularly to its avant-garde wing, which had such a huge impact on my writing from the outset, but was kind of polluted with my own voice, which is very American, I think, and specifically Los Angeles-centric in its flatness and in its attempt to induce some kind of poetic trance within its limitations. But I wanted to be very careful not to end up imitating particular writers' styles, so I went out my way to avoid reading any French fiction or poetry while I was writing the novel in hopes of achieving a kind of prose that would have a French vibe rather than writing that would display obvious French earmarks. Instead, I studied a lot of French films, thinking they would be a source far enough away from fiction that nothing from them would get noticeably grafted on. The films that had the biggest impact were Alain Resnais' Providence, both because its meta-fictional central conceit had a relationship to mine and because it's a very French film that is crosshatched with an English text and actors, and Eric Rohmer's Perceval les Gallois, which is a film largely set outdoors but shot on a highly stylized indoor sets, because I was very interested in how strangely it used very artificial representations to play with viewers' ability to suspend belief.
BJD: The narrator is playing a predatory game in the book but he is also playing linguistic games on the reader. Was that kind of Nabokovian teasing in your original plan for the book or did that voice come in later drafts?
DC: That teasing was there from the very beginning, or, rather, the novel's style was constructed in order to enable that kind of linguistic game playing. What entered after I'd established the voice and was elaborated on in later drafts were the writing's props, as I think of them: the secret passage-laden chateaus, the tricky relationship between flat pictorial illustration/animations of people and places as employed by Japanese anime and manga and Disneyland and so forth versus the more fleshed out representations that fiction allows and basically demands, the actor versus "real" person motif, the play with surveillance, and so on.
BJD: How do you think your nomadism between Europe and the U.S. has altered your work? The Marbled Swarm has a haunted Europe sensibility, akin to a late-Buñuel film but there are also moments only an American would think of, like when the narrator confesses that he first mistook the chateaus of France as "Disney castles."
DC: Having lived the great majority of the time in France for the past six years had a giant impact, as did my not yet having learned to speak or understand the French language with much sophistication. On the one hand, I live here, and I have gotten a grasp on how the French view their own culture and country -- enough so that, say, when I saw Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, I shared my French friends' amusement and feeling of being charmed by how extremely American and romantic his view of France is -- but, on the other hand, I haven't lost my long term, very American presumptions and reference points. The interesting thing for me is that I'm able to straddle the two perspectives and feel them both in a way that's both comfortable and conflictive, and it was precisely that in-between viewpoint that I wanted to represent in the novel's narrator, whose voice is fatally ruptured and flawed by its American influence.
BJD: Why do we keep writing novels? There's some nagging truth to the narrator's statement "I've never read a decent novel in my life unless skimming fifteen pages of Houellbecq's Platform to make conversation counts." I could comfortably stay in the art world, or poetry, and make "book" projects, with quotation marks. But I try to leave that world every few years to make books without quotation marks; I think mostly to see if I can. For you, there are the theater and music collaborations, which have to feel much different, more immediate, than novel writing. What does story telling in this 50 to 100-thousand word format still hold for you?
DC: No, the novel is still the form I feel most dedicated to and the one in which I feel most wholly at home. The theater and music collaborations are extremely interesting, but, partially due to the lack of full control that comes with collaborating, I continue to think of them as places to experiment with my writing, to escape fiction temporarily or to use as opportunities to gauge my abilities and test their limits. I feel like I'm utilizing and fooling around with fragments of my talent when I work in theater and music. There's something of a relationship to the writing of poetry, but I always feel as though there is a big limitation to how much I can do and give to those kinds of work. There's just something about fiction, and most especially about novel-length fiction, that feels far more conducive to what I want to do as a writer than any other form. Other than wanting or maybe even needing that much room to get at what I have to say, I really don't know why.
Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo lived his short and tumultuous life on the island of Madagascar during the time of French colonial rule. He was born in the capital Antananarivo (Tananarive) in 1901 to a mother who had once been a Malagasy aristocrat but who lost her property and fell into poverty after French colonization.
Rabéarivelo attended mainly French Catholic schools, until being expelled at the age of 13. After a brief stint in public school, he dropped out entirely and worked at various odd jobs, all the while reading voraciously and teaching himself everything he could about poetry. He eventually found low-paying work as a proofreader at the printing house Imprimerie de l’Imerina, a position he retained until his death in 1937.
During Rabéarivelo’s lifetime, the French placed heavy restrictions on writing in Malagasy (the native language of Madagascar), and all texts written in French by the Malagasy people were automatically classified as French literature. Rabéarivelo acted as a sort of dual ambassador for French literature as well as traditional Malagasy literature. He was heavily influenced by both the French Surrealists and the pagan/folkloric traditions of the native Malagasy.
He wrote in French and Malagasy, and was as deeply invested in preserving Malagasy literature and language as he was in expanding on the work of the French Surrealists. Rabéarivelo translated several works of Malagasy into French. He encouraged French-language texts by Malagasy writers to be recognized as Malagasy literature.
In part because of his commitment to both languages and traditions, Rabéarivelo was held in suspicion and banned from traveling by the French government, yet he was never fully embraced by his native Malagasy. He resisted definition and continued to pursue his poetic vision while confined to a life of relative poverty on the island.
He started a literary journal called Capricorne, contributed articles and critical essays to numerous publications, mastered the Spanish language, and translated many poems. Over the course of his lifetime, seven volumes of his poetry were published. His accomplishments were accompanied by agonizing personal difficulties, including drug addiction, depression and physical illness. He married in his early 20s. He and his wife had five children, including a daughter who died at age 3.
In spite of his personal anguish, Rabéarivelo’s poems reflect an ethereal, mythic universe and a deep connection to the natural world. In the poem “You There,” Rabéarivelo speaks of a mysterious symbiotic connection to the earth, birth and growth:
You are mud and remember it –
actually you’re the child of this parturient dark
who feeds on the milkstuff of the moon,
then slowly grows into a trunk
above this low wall the dreams of flowers crawl over
and the smell of summer at a lull.
To feel, believe, that roots push from your feet
and slide and turn like thirsty snakes
down to an underground spring
or clutch the sand,
and marry you to it so soon — you, alive
tree, unknown, unidentified tree
swelling with fruit you’ll have to pick yourself.
His poem “The Three Birds” also reflects an affinity for the spiritual reflected in the natural world:
The Three Birds
The bird of iron, the bird of steel
who slashed the morning clouds
and tried to gouge the stars
out beyond the day
is hiding as if ashamed
in an unreal cave.
The bird of flesh, the bird of feathers
who tunnels through the wind
to reach a moon he saw in a dream
hanging in the branches
falls in tandem with the night
into a maze of brambles.
But the bird that has no body
enchants the warden of the mind
with his stammering aria,
then opens his echoing wings
and rushes away to pacify all space
and only returns immortal.
Rabéarivelo’s unusual use of language is present in this translation of a traditional Malagasy poem, “Lamba.” An excerpt of that poem reads:
Few trees bloom without leaves,
Few flowers bloom without perfume
and few fruits mature
without pulp you have the foliage,
you have the perfume,
you have the pulp of the old tree
that is my race in lamba.
Your name rhymes well with legs
in this long that I chose
to protect my name of the forgetting,
in this language which speaks to the soul
while ours murmurs to the heart.
Your name rhymes well with legs
with the legs which cover
your transparent sharpness:
But you, you rhyme well with several other things in my thought.
Your appearance rhymes with rocks, in Imerina.
When there is feast and that the crowd goes on terraces:
With the strips of peaceful egrets
which come to arise on the forests of rushes
as soon as the sun capsizes.
Petri Liukkon, at Books and Writers, says of Rabéarivelo: “By replacing the reality of a colonized civilization with his own images, he created a new isolated world, full of melancholy and bitter-sweet beauty.”
In spite of his quiet rebellion against French control, Rabéarivelo’s lifelong dream was to live and write in France. An opportunity arose for him to represent the colony through a special French program, but it was denied when a group of basket-weavers were selected instead. Grief-stricken by the death of his daughter and feeling that he lost his last only chance to realize his ambitions, Rabéarivelo committed suicide by poisoning at the age of 37. Some reports claim that he recorded his dying moments in his journal.
Unfortunately it was very challenging to find a wide selection of Rabéarivelo’s work online. But don’t despair! Rabearivelo’s book Translated From The Night is available through the publisher Lascaux Editions, with English translations by Robert Zillar.
Note: Translations of “You There” and “Three Birds” by Kelli Boyles.
Kristen McHenry works on poetry by night and health outreach by day. She created and facilitates the Poet’s Cafe, a weekly poetry workshop for homeless teens. She shares poetry and her thoughts on writing at The Good Typist.
Noah Cicero is a writer living in Youngstown, Ohio.
He is the author of over five books, including The Human War (Fugue State Press, 2003) and The Insurgent (Blatt, 2010). He has been published widely online and in print. He works at Red Lobster.
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